H-1B visas are a hotly debated immigration policy, since they allow foreigners access to work in the United States. Employers—led by IT companies—argue they need them to access the best talent in the world and that the United States doesn't produce enough science and engineering talent to turn foreign workers away. Microsoft chairman Bill Gates is among the tech leaders who've spoken out in favor of expanding H-1B visas, saying U.S. companies need to import expertise or expand abroad to find it. Unemployed and underemployed IT workers see them as a way to import cheap labor and hold down U.S. wages.
The 20,000 visas are for people from other countries who get advanced degrees from U.S. schools and otherwise would have to return home to find work. The exemption was seen as necessary to keep those advanced skills in the country and make U.S. degrees all the more appealing for international students. Tuesday was the last day that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services accepted visas under that exemption. The 65,000 general H-1B visas for this fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, was filled in August. People can apply for next year's visas beginning in April. Workers can still file for extensions of existing H-1B visas.
IT employment picked up in the last year, with the jobless rate falling to 2.9%, down from 4.3% in 2004, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But some IT job categories have been hard hit by offshore outsourcing and automation the past five years, in particular programmers. Though the number of programmers grew 3% last year, the 581,000 programmers employed is 22% less than in 2000. While some of those workers have transitioned to new jobs in IT—project managers, network administrators, security specialists—many haven't found IT work. For those workers, the H-1B only adds to their problems.